Etiquette Questions, Answered: Tricky Conversations
How Can I Tell a Relative They Won’t Be the Guardian to My Child?
Q. My husband and I recently finished signing our wills. We assigned my only sister a large responsibility in my health-care
advance directive, but we did not appoint her and her husband as guardians for our child. (I expect this to cause a problem;
she told our mother that she was surprised that we haven’t asked her about it. We don’t think that she and her husband are
good role models.)
Our lawyer suggested that we give copies of our wills and advance directives to those who are named in them. But I don’t want to open a can of worms by showing these documents to my sister. What should I do?
A. It’s bad enough planning for your own death without worrying about the feathers you’re ruffling in the process. But you’re not doing yourself any favors by avoiding this conversation. Give your sister a copy of the directive and emphasize the crucial role you’ve given her. Say, “I wanted you to know that I named you in my health-care proxy. That’s because I trust you to make these vital decisions on my behalf.”
Once she has promised not to pull the plug prematurely (kidding!), mention the custody issue as well. Instead of explaining why you didn’t pick your sister, illuminate for her a few plausible reasons why you chose someone else: geographic concerns, continuity for your child, and so on. “I’m sorry if that hurts you,” you can say, if she is, in fact, hurt. But she may not be. She could be relieved, especially if she doesn’t have kids of her own. You obviously believe, whatever your sister’s flaws, that she can make smart decisions in a medical crisis, so trust her to be a loving and empathetic listener as well.
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